Becoming your own teacher


Multiple exposure–Prior to layers in Photoshop, multiple exposures in camera required some doing. In this particular picture. I exposed the same frame of film 3 times by cocking the shutter and not advancing that frame between each exposures. I also adjusted the exposure this way. If the scene metered 1/125 sec @ f2.8. I first decided how many exposures I wanted to make. Since I elected to do 3, I under-exposed 3 stops. Remember, with every exposure the exposure builds up. If I didn’t account for that, by the time the 3 exposure is made, the final image will be over-exposed. That meant setting an exposure of 1/1000 sec @ f2.8 for all 3 instances I tripped the shutter. Tri-X BW ISO 400 speed film pushed to ISO 1600.

As with most art forms, once you’ve learned the basics of photography, like which dial or knob controls what, the rest is experimentation, being very disciplined, driven and analytical.

The problem is, understanding how the camera captures images isn’t necessarily very intuitive.

To further complicate matters, as prices on digital single lens reflex cameras drop, more and more folks are tempted into buying those Canon Rebel bodies or Nikon D40s with kit lenses as their very first cameras.

Without any previous photography knowledge or experience, these cameras have an extremely steep learning curve.

So for the total novice, there’s actually 3 stumbling blocks in their path to their digital mastery.

  • Camera Handling
  • Photo editing software
  • Computer literacy

If you’ve been using computers as part of your everyday work, the 3rd one might not apply to you.

Camera Handling

Unlike analog or film cameras, the digital camera of today is all buttons, dials, knobs and layers of menus.


On a film camera, if you turn the aperture ring on a lens, you can see instantly that the opening gets bigger or smaller letting in more or less light.

If you took a picture on a digital camera and your LCD monitor shows it’s under-exposed, which direction do you turn the dial to let in more light? Clockwise or counterclockwise?

Instant feedback of a different kind–On a film camera, when you set the aperture to f2, you can see the aperture is “wide open”. Not so with digital. Adding to the confusion for novices, the numbers are all reciprocals. A large number of f22 actually means a small aperture.

On your brand-spanking new Nikon D5000 or Canon Rebel XSi, after you turn a dial, all you see is a change in the LCD display either from a bigger number to a smaller number.

Also when asked to set your camera to 125. It could mean any one of 3 settings: ISO, shutter speed or even focal length. So you can see why this can be extremely confusing.

If your entry level digital SLR didn’t come with a kit lens, like an 18 to 55 mm zoom lens, you actually have one less variable to grapple with.

That kit lens on the 18 mm end has an aperture of f3.5 but when zoomed in to the 55 mm end, the wide open aperture is f5.6.

If you have about $100 extra, buying a 50 mm f1.8 lens is worth it. It’s a great portrait lens and it will make it easier to learn camera handling.

Photo Editing

Photo editing can be viewed as the sorting or culling of the gems or the “yahoos” in your pictures from the eeky or terrible pictures.

It can also mean the “fixing” or each individual image to make it look better.

For that, the premier photo-editing program is Adobe’s Photoshop.

Its GUI (graphical user interface) is extremely complex with many ways of customizing the workspace.

Even after all these years of using the program, there are still some commands that I have no idea what they do. That’s just how complicated and powerful it is.

Most folks only need to understand resolution, file size, file types in case they want to print on their own.

The more ambitious will need to know how to make selections, cloning out dust, making color adjustments, dodging and burning and converting to Black and White.

Computer Literacy

Even if you don’t plan to do any major editing or tweaking of your images, you still need to understand something about computers.

Far too many people disregard this very critical skill.

  • What happens to that digital file from the camera when you transfer it to the computer?
  • Where exactly does that file live on your computer?
  • How should you store your pictures so you can easily retrieve it
  • When your hard drive is full, how do you continue to keep track of those files?

Why not Program but Manual exposure mode?

So after you’ve gone out paid a lot for a digital SLR, why shoot it on Program mode?

For the diehards who are really into the engineering and programming, you might be lucky enough to find a graph like this for your particular camera. I had to go back all the way to my Canon EOS-1D before I could find this chart.

“Program” is good because it frees you to concentrate on taking pictures as most beginners want to do. If you are a control freak which I hope you grow up to be, you will be increasing annoyed wondering what camera engineers did or told your camera to favor when it makes exposure decisions for you.

You may as well have bought a point-and-shoot camera. Shooting on manual mode for exposure offers you an opportunity to teach yourself something important–how to troubleshoot.

The best part of digital is this: the numbers are all there in the EXIF data. There is no need to take notes by hand noting frame numbers and roll numbers etc.

In the field when shooting, the histogram will give you a better gauge on how close you are with your exposures. If you want to try shooting RAW, you have even more wiggle room.

Your setups

Strong hair light behind Lesly against grey made her stand out.

Until I started teaching, I didn’t realize how useful the behind the scene pictures can be.

Instead of having to sketch and draw out the setup, a simple overall picture puts everything in context.

If you’re learning to light, this is invaluable.

Armed with notes on position of your lights, reflectors and the kind of light modifiers and what f-stop each light is kicking into the scene, the next time you want to re-create the same look, all you have to do is refer to your notes.lesly1

If you’re photographing a model and you’ve asked for a change of pose, take a picture even if it’s unflattering.

If you don’t, your body language might cause your model to lose confidence in herself.

It’s digital so just fire off a frame and say something like, “That looked really good, let’s try that pose a little later. My lights are not set up properly for that shot right now.”

Rapport with your model is critical. If you don’t strike it off, it will show in your pictures. I can guarantee it, so a little praise can go a long way.

Having a record of a bad pose is a good reminder to yourself when it didn’t work.

You know what you like most of the time. Sometimes though, you get too close to your art and you can be so in love that image. Be your own harshest critic.

Ask all these questions of yourself as you are sorting picking out the “yahoos” from the “terrible ones”.

Great Content is out there

Books and magazines used to be the primary source of knowledge but now it’s websites.

I learned a lot through experimenting, taking good notes and analyzing thinking critically about my mistakes especially when I failed miserably.

We’ve all visited  forums where you find lots of bickering and general unpleasantness because there are many self-important, opinionated smart alecks who love to show off more than share their knowledge in a positive way.

When you find one, like Cambridge in Colour, it’s really worth it to participate and contribute there. At CIC, you can upload your images and ask opinions and suggestions on how to improve your work.

I have found the folks there to be very civil, knowledgeable and very friendly.

If you know of other websites, do share those with me.

6 thoughts on “Becoming your own teacher”

  1. Oh Peter,

    I think you need to write a book! This was a very tantalizing article, full of interesting things all of which I want to know a lot more about!

    Put your whole life on hold, sit down and write the book.


  2. Hi Brian,
    I salute you for your tenacity and motivation. I don’t think I would have been that motivated to read a pdf manual without having a camera in front of me much less wait a year to buy a camera.

    At the rate these digital SLR are being produced, by the time a year goes by, a new model is out!

    No, I’m not making fun of you, okay? You’re hardcore & I salute you. Thanks for the kind words because it keeps me going.

    I added a chart/graph on how the camera decides on what exposure to set on “Program” mode. Those used to be included in the owner’s manual. Increasingly they’re more difficult to find.

  3. Good article. I am a self taught “prosumer.” A year before I bought my D200 I decided to read the pdf manual for it. The manual talked about things like aperture, shutter speed, ISO and endless other aspects of digital photography. I didn’t know anything the manual was talking about so every time I found a term I wasn’t familiar with I just looked it up in a search engine. It took me about 7 months to get through the entire manual. When I was finished, I knew how to operate a camera I had never even held in my hands before. I have to say, for me, this method really worked for understanding the technical aspects of the digital SLR. Composition and things like understanding light and exposure are a different story.

    Like you said Pete, a lot of people get their hands on a new digital SLR and the first time they turn it on, they are faced with menus and technical aspects that could take months or years of learning and it could be a real turn-off. Some just stick with preset modes and won’t get past that. For those who are interested in higher quality snapshots than a P&S can offer, the presets work fine, but for anyone thinking of using photography as a creative outlet, there is no getting around taking the time to learn about the technical aspects of their camera. Books, internet articles, and magazines are in endless supply and will help with the learning process. READ YOUR MANUAL TOO! The rest will come with experimentation. Thanks for another good article Pete!

  4. Paul,
    You’re being too kind. It’s really too bad I never thought about the behind-scenes-pictures all those years I worked at the newspaper. It never occurred to me that those could be that useful.

    I’m sure you have lots of teachable moments and behind-the-scene pictures from all your wonderful work as well. You could share them here, you know?

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